How (and Why) To Make Organizational Alignment Happen
In the plainest language we can muster, organizational alignment is when every member of an entire group is aware of and agrees on the group’s direction. Typically, that direction is set forth in a strategic plan supported by an implementation and/or operational plan. An example:
- Strategic plan: The organization is going to relieve child hunger by making and distributing peanut butter.
- Implementation plan: The organization will make 50,000 tubs of peanut butter, and fundraise enough to pay for production and distribution.
- Operational plan: My project is to find suppliers from whom we can buy enough peanuts to make 50,000 tubs this year.
These examples become ever more granular, with the operational plan having numerous projects to support the implementation and strategic plan.
Now, the words will differ. Insert the ones that feel best to you. You are not organizationally aligning with us right now, so we can be loose with words. If we were trying to align, though, we would be real sticklers. There would be a glossary, a business rules document — the whole nine yards.
To help illustrate the value of organizational alignment, let's discuss what happens in its absence. Without organizational alignment, resources are spent on activities that do not align with the mission. We are out of alignment if the organization wants to make peanut butter, but we keep buying bananas for the manufacturing facility.
But lack of alignment can happen at any level (including non-ridiculous ones) because subordinate employees do not have the tools to see if their work aligns with the strategic plan. They cannot know except in broad strokes, like, “We need to raise $14 million this fall.” But what they may not know is that the organizational goal is (for example) to retain more event participants and transition them to sustaining donors. Without knowing that, they cannot help, which could hurt achieving the unknown (to them) goal.
And, sadly, the lack of alignment can manifest as group infighting because the group never came together to decide exactly what the group's goal was. That infighting can consume all the energy, money and time that could otherwise have gone to filling hungry kids’ bellies with peanut butter.
Here is a four-step plan to help your organization align:
1. Invest in transparency and understanding. Confirm beyond any doubt — do we all understand the mission the same way? Words are a way to label thoughts. Often, labeling mistakes unintentionally mislead people as to your true intent. “Defund the police” comes to mind. Do we all believe our mission statement means the same thing? Settle this for sure during your strategic planning. The decisions you set forth in this document will predicate everything that follows.
2. Really commit to transparency. The agreed-upon mission, the supporting values, the ever-more-granular subordinate goals — all must be transparent. They must be understood by every member of the organization. We all must know the goals and the goal structure. Spoiler: If you do this currently by distributing a document, you are just going to hate what comes next.
3. Each person’s daily work must be connected to the over-arching plan to measure progress. Yes, I am sorry. This is the hardest part, but, in all likelihood, you will need another platform. If your strategic plan lives in a document, and there is no compelling reason for most organizations to dig into that document every single day, you need a new system.
You must be able to map every single person’s everyday work back to the strategic plan. If someone completes a project, the reporting of their work against the plan should roll up to the top level automatically. Yes, this is achievable. However, in my experience, see a massive resistance to mapping and tracking everyday work to the over-arching plan. Be prepared for this — transparency installs accountability without even trying. That is scary to many.
No strategic planning engagement should be considered complete until this sort of platform has been loaded with the strategic plan, goal owners, goal deadlines and all ongoing work is mapped to this structure. This exercise will also produce a handy list of “stuff we shouldn’t be doing because it does not align to our strategic plan.”
4. Require across-the-board commitment to the agreed-upon mission and support of the strategic plan. Aloud. In print. Get tattoos together.
After you are finished, you will be a hero. Here is why: The happy day that results when your organization is aligned is characterized by each group member’s ability to make decisions autonomously and independently. They can do so and remain in alignment with the group's stated goals. You do not have to micromanage, and that makes everybody happy. The sun will shine; birds will sing. Then, all that is left is for you to make good peanut butter and feed hungry kids.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.